Friday, 18 March 2011

Why study economics at university?


Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words…”
- Keynes,
eulogizing Alfred Marshall
(and himself)

A spot of analysis first - the question is two questions with a covert moral element, that is: “why economics?”, “why university economics?”, with “why should one..?” abbreviated away.


I – Why economics?

I study economics because I am angry, and because I am no longer young enough to be angry without it. Part of my dismay stems from the fact that the world is not as good as it could be; the rest from there being no easy answers to the first fact. I want neither the self-exalting cynicism of conservatives nor the vague rage of anti-globalizers. Good economics - rara avis in terra! - is in the business of dismantling simplistic solutions from all comers (e.g. pure libertarianism and naïve socialism).

Also because what rhetoric was to the Romans, economics is for us: that is, the politician’s favourite persuasive lever. Right or wrong, the economic mindset rules the world. Thou shalt incur cost only for benefit; thou shalt understand preferences as rational and transitive and existence as a function. “Policy” – which is always somewhat economic – is now where everything large is done.

Because an illiterate society cannot really be democratic, and because what it means to be “literate” shifts, and should shift beyond just “recognising written words” to include something like “grasping what the determining forces of the world are up to”. This is, of course, economic literacy. Our intuitions regarding much of the causal history of macroeconomics are flatly wrong; so, even given neoclassical theory’s raft of assumptions, the framework at least generates educated guesses.

Because, as Keynes points out, the field is a chimera. Bit of this, bit of maths, bit of smuggled politics. (And life too is a cross-breed.)



II – Why at university?

Because thought happens inside professional structures now, and in professional notation with a professional bearing. If I wish to think for a living, I shall have to do it to measure. University curricula are focussed, vetted, and compressed ways of understanding: unlike some other fields, academic economists are practitioners, and thus know which techniques are actually used and what is frill.

And anyway, as well as studying economies and peoples’ economical behaviour, I want to study economics, the limits of the field as it is. It’s sometimes alleged that the field is obsessed with egoism, and with thus rationalizing all endeavours. Actually, the practice of economics requires instead that you treat everyone as essentially unprincipled, which is not quite the same. People aren’t stupid, unless you count greed (unbounded externalized monotonic preference) and laziness (hyperbolic time-discounting) as stupidities.

It is worth noting that I haven’t heard the word “capitalism” in perhaps two hundred hours of lectures. But I don’t imagine that physicists spend much time talking about inductive reasoning, nor theologians much on how they have to prove there’s this ‘God’ figure; the competitive market is integral to almost all analysis. My problem with the assumptions of the neoclassical framework is that they preclude critical engagement: an ethical capitalism needs a humanistic economics. And if such a thing can begin anywhere, it will be with a tenured professor with a sense of humour and the vigilance of Hayek.

A great many economic studies are outright rude (cf. our revealed preferences regarding self-obsession, prostitution, cheating…), and wound society’s unearned sense of dignity. Academic status is a good mask to wear when uncovering these!

I want to return to the hidden ethical part of your question, because it is symbolic of what economics has been doing: pretending that its status as a science disentangles it from moral concerns. (Economics has always been Political Economy. What we know as “incentives” were once called “temptations”.) We look at the intersection of desire and environment. Both of these things are vast and vastly unstable, so it’s only to be expected that the joint hypothesis of the two is even more indeterminate. Economics predicts - on average rightly - that the question people ask is: “What’s in it for me?” The good economist – that is, the economist as human being – will reply, “A better world.”

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